Monday, July 16, 2007

How the Mob Impacts Your Wallet

Despite the sensational charges - racketeering and 18 murders - the trial of five alleged Chicago mobsters isn't exactly capturing the public's attention.

"There's an awful lot of attitude that we don't have to worry about the Outfit anymore," said James Wagner, head of the Chicago Crime Commission and a former FBI agent who battled the mob in New York and Chicago.

The five defendants all say they're innocent. In addition, Joseph "The Clown" Lombardo Sr., Frank Calabrese Sr., James Marcello, Paul "The Indian" Schiro and Anthony Doyle are all in their 60s and 70s, and the murders are alleged to have happened decades ago.

That may lead people to think the mob is ancient history, Wagner said. But he and another former FBI agent say that's not true. And while it may seem distant and irrelevant to suburban residents, experts say there are many reasons for the public to care about the outcome of such trials and the health of the mob, Wagner said:


James Stolfe, the owner of the popular Connie's Pizza, recently testified that he was threatened by two goons in the 1980s to pay "street tax" so he could stay in business - or else. Stolfe said he ended up paying $100,000 upfront and then $1,000 a month to Calabrese Sr. until 2002, not so very long ago.

"That's one example (of how the mob is still operating), but there are ... any number of businesses out there who are facing the same problem," Wagner said. "In all of those businesses, that's (the cost) passed on to the consumer."

"We're all paying an extra tax to support the Outfit," he said.

The link between unions and the mob is long and storied. The loser, Wagner said, is the average working member who gets stuck with contracts of questionable benefit while mobsters live high on the hog.

One illustration of this is the federal takeover of the Laborers International Union of North America because of pervasive mob influence. After the national takeover, the feds drilled down to its grass roots, its membership organizations. In Chicago, that was the Construction and General Laborers' District Council.

"The rights of members of the union to control the affairs of the union have been systematically abused," wrote federal trustees in 1999 court filings. "Those union members who might have opposed this corrupt state of affairs have been intimidated into silence."

At the time, the national union was made up of 21 locals and 19,000 members. Shortly before the takeover, the union's president was Bruno Caruso, who was "at least" an associate of organized crime, the trustees of Laborers International alleged. The group's vice president was John "Pudgy" Matassa Jr., a made member of the mob, they further claimed.

Besides serving as a "Who's Who" of mob leadership, union bosses spent thousands in union money on luxury meals and the like, the union trustees alleged.

Despite the court action against it in 1999, the Outfit fought tooth and nail to keep some hold on the unions. The fight lasted until 2004, when the court case was closed, shortly after forcing out several people alleged to be abusing union funds. The list included Joseph Lombardo Jr., son of Joseph Lombardo Sr., currently on trial.

In the last decade, dozens of people were convicted of abusing Chicago's Hired Trucks program, with truck companies paying city officials kickbacks to be in the program or, in some cases, to get paid for little or no work.

Some of the companies had mob ties "and therefore made a bundle of money off the improper management of the program," Wagner said. "Certainly a healthy percentage were connected to organized crime."

Those corruption costs are on top of the tax dollars that cover the labor and expenses of the FBI and U.S. attorney's office as they investigate the mob.

Gambling remains the life-blood of the mob, said Wagner and Peter Wacks, a former Chicago FBI agent who fought the mob for decades. "It's always been a big money-maker for them," Wacks said.

That remains true today. Along with the five men on trial now, numerous defendants pleaded guilty before the trial began to running a video poker ring until at least as late as 2003. "They've advanced, basically, like the rest of society has: electronically," Wacks said.

Another defendant, Nicholas Ferriola, admitted to operating a sports bookmaking operation, with "juice" loans made to losing gamblers.

Sports betting operations are particularly popular with the mob, Wagner said, because Illinois casinos do not allow them.

Even supposedly legitimate casinos are not immune to the mob. The proposed Rosemont casino was scuttled after the gaming board proved it had hidden investors tied to the mob. Taxpayers are still losing out on the proceeds of that casino license while the battle rages on in the appellate courts.

The Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin casino paid more than $3 million in fines in 2001 after it was discovered it gave an air handling system contract to the son of a mob figure. The son had no experience in the industry, Wagner said.

The Illinois Gaming Board also banned several organized crime figures from casinos, said Wagner, who once was an investigator for the gaming board. "We got them banned, including Donald Angelini," the mob's oddsman, Wagner said.

Other banned mobsters "were basically outfit loan sharks who were trying to collect money owed to them that people were betting at the boats," Wagner said.

While the Chicago Outfit is not as violent as it used to be, it still manages to bump off those it wants to keep silent or punish, Wagner said.

Two very public and brutal executions took place several years ago, reminiscent of the 18 now charged in the trial.

In 2001, Anthony Chiaramonti was gunned down in Lyons. In 2000, mobster Ronald Jarrett was shot to death in Bridgeport.

As recently as August 2006, mobster Anthony Zizzo disappeared, never to be seen again. While authorities can't prove Zizzo is dead, "there was some speculation that because of some of his associations with some of the defendants, that he might be subpoenaed" in the current trial, Wagner said. But as convincing as he thinks those arguments are about why people should still care about the mob, Wagner has one he thinks is even more convincing.

"For gosh sakes, 18 murders is a huge number ... even if it happened a long time ago," he said. "People should be outraged. ... They ought to be happy that, finally, these men are being brought to justice."

Thanks to Rob Olmstead

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